Our Northern Scotland trip – Part 3: Skara Brae

This time we’ll concentrate entirely on one site, dear friends – the most important and famous one on the Okrney Islands, the Stone Age settlement of Skara Brae. Years ago, while I was studying history back in Munich, I first saw photographs of this unique place, and it’s fascinated me ever since; I’d been wanting to see it in reality for decades, and finally the day had come: we arrived at the Skara Brae visitors centre, collected our pre-booked tickets (if you’re planning to see ancient sites on the Orkneys, always book ahead, or you might not be able to get in!), bought a guide and some more souvenirs at the shop – and then we went on the path that leads to this wondrous site…

The walk itself – almost a mile long – literally takes us back in history: there is a milestone for an important event in mankind according to the distance you’ve walked in the direction of the ancient village; you pass the first moon landing, the invention of the telephone and the American Independence quite quickly, then there are longer walks past the Crusades, the Fall of Rome and the Parthenon, and then you’re going way back into early history, past Stonehenge and the Pyramids, until you reach 3,100 BCE when Skara Brae was first built. And there it is – a breathtaking view!

Going round the stone village clockwise, you get a look at all the remaining houses except one, the best preserved one named ‘House 7’, which has been covered up just in time to prevent it from destruction by the sunlight. The houses are all similar in shape and furniture (which suggests that their little society must have been quite egalitarian); and all the furniture is made of stone because of the lack of wood on the islands – that’s why Skara Brae is so incredibly well preserved! You can clearly see the stone bedframes, the cupboards and the hearths in House 1, 2 and 10:

There also is a workshop on the edge of the village, where the local craftsmen made stone tools and jewellery; the remains of a fireplace are visible where the stone was heated up to a very high temperature in order to make it easier to use.

Looking at the site as a whole is just so amazing – the narrow passages that connect the houses almost seem to come alive with Stone Age people if you use a bit of imagination!

And making everything even more real is the replica house that has been set up next to the visitors centre: based on House 7, the one that is closed to the public, it’s equipped with a textile roof, pottery and kitchen tools, and the animal skins and furs that would have served as mattresses and blankets to the Neolithic inhabitants. You could really spend hours in here, letting your imagination about how those people lived flow freely, and playing hide-and-seek!

Also, the official souvenir guide we bought contains a lot of information on life in Skara Brae as the archaeologists have reconstructed it: the inhabitants seem to have lived mostly on cattle and sheep breeding, hunting and fishing, but a large number of stone objects carved with mysterious symbols found at the site suggests that they might have been something more than farmers – perhaps a scientist elite that observed the movements of the sun and the moon at the nearby stone circles of Stenness and Brodgar? The beautiful illustrations by Brian Lee really make the place come alive again…

Whether or not its inhabitants were some sort of elite, life in Skara Brae was simple, nevertheless; the little houses were cosy but dark and rather smoky from the hearth fire which they also used for smoking meat and fish that they’d hang up on the roof.

So, most of the crafting was done outdoors whenever the weather permitted it, like making the decorated pottery that the grooved-ware people who had come here from Europe are famous for.

Both men and women were fashion-conscious even then: besides their warm clothes made out of animal skins and furs, they also wore considerable amounts of jewellery which they made themselves out of stone and bones. Those people were real hep cats!

I must say, dear friends, that standing on that magnificent ancient site and musing over the way of life more than 5,000 years ago has been one of the greatest experiences in my life – if you’re at all interested in history and the life of our ancestors, Skara Brae definitely is one of the must-see sites!

Next time: On to Shetland!

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